Saturday, December 03, 2011

Memoirs: Chapter Four

My Evolving Political Views: An Interlude

Departing from strict chronology, this chapter deals more comprehensively with my political views, which have elicited puzzlement in some quarters. I have found that, in discussing these views with others, my politics tend to be met either with indifference (because they are eclectic) or disparagement (because they fit no particular established pattern). That said, let me see if I can clear a few things up.

My parents brought me up in a far-left political sect, the Communist Party USA. We tempered our consumption of the “bourgeois” press with a subscription to the Daily People’s World, the West Coast counterpart of the Daily Worker, Like many intellectuals of the thirties my stepfather had adopted the vulgar Marxism rife during those Depression years.

In our household I don’t remember any airing of such key issues of Marxian economic theory as surplus value or the purported progressive immiseration of the working class. In the immediate postwar period, when plumbers and truck drivers began to earn more than professors, this stuff about the plight of the poor workers would not have had much traction. We were told, of course, that another Depression was just around the corner (which it was not). The main thing I remember absorbing from those conversations and readings was a Manichaean view of the contemporary global situation in which the valiant “progressive forces” (that is, the Warsaw Pact nations dominated by Moscow, and Mao’s China) were arrayed against the evil nemesis of capitalist plutocracy headquartered in Wall Street. Without question the US was always the arch-villain in this process, a view that I have found wearyingly replicated over and over again in later dissident movements. This is so even now that the Soviet Union is dead and gone. As far as I can see, the unending flood of screeds produced by Noam Chomsky simply mimics this hoary and simplistic sheep-and-goats doctrine.

Some averred that the only hope for change was the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace, who ran in 1948 under the aegis of a third party. In fact, the hapless Wallace, whose main expertise lay in agriculture, was manipulated by his Communist and fellow-traveler advisers.


At that time though, I got off the bus, the Comintern Express. The precipitating event was the defection of Marshall Jozef Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia from the Soviet orbit in 1948. Then a precocious fourteen-year-old, I wrote a long letter, a kind of cri du coeur, to the editors at the Daily People’s World, asking how a former stalwart champion of the people (Tito) could so suddenly turn into a “social-fascist beast.” No answer came. Of course the excommunication simply reflected the fact that Tito had had the temerity to defy Stalin. and got away with it. Stalinism, enforced by the party line, pulled the strings that made all the puppets, including my foolish parents, dance.

I then deprogrammed myself by reading two authors, George Orwell (1984; and Animal Farm) and Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon). I later came to find Orwell a narrow and simplistic puritan, hobbled by misogynistic, homophobic. and other suburban prejudices (he denounced "pansy" poets).

Koestler, a man of many parts, eventually returned to his first love, the history of science. I followed him in this interest, as seen most notably in his brilliant treatise, The Act of Creation. Two recent biographies have highlighted Koestler's personal failings, rehearsing charges that may well be true.  No one is perfect.  But for me his life was one of the most emblematic trajectories of the twentieth century.

Any perceptive person can benefit from off-track experiences such as my Commie education, tossing out the dross (lots of it) and retaining what still seems of value. So let me say something about the latter. In keeping with their beliefs my parents sought out and made friends with black people, then known as Negroes, whom we sometimes entertained in our home. Another thing I gained from this misguided though formative political education was a healthy skepticism about our two major parties--or rather the Demopublicans. Their alternating pattern of dominance is simply a series of switches from Tweedledum to Tweedledee and back again. The reason, of course, is the Permanent Government ensconced in Washington DC, staffed by venal career bureaucrats, ruled by lobbyists awash in money, and abetted by a disgraceful, toadying media. Today the truth of this principle seems to be affirmed once again, as the Obama policies more and more mirror those of George W. Bush. Only the rhetoric changes.

From time to time a third party arises, only to fall by the wayside. By and large the Anglo-Saxon political system does not permit such pluralism. We are resolutely binary. Does this acknowledgement lead to despair? Not necessarily, for there are some rays of light. I note the success of movements organized around particular goals, as seen in the civil-rights, women's, and GLBT movements. I write the acronym reluctantly, as it fosters a degree of fragmentation ("diversity") that is not helpful, in my view.


In college I took a worthless course in that misnamed discipline Political Science. It was only in the 1960s that I began to read on my own in this field. As a medieval scholar I found, curiously enough, succor in that remote era of Western history, which invented the concepts of separation of powers, representative government, the common law, and the just war. (The latter, however, gives me pause, for the criteria for determining which wars, if any, are just, seem elastic, all too conveniently so.)  Yet these efforts did not carry me very far.

In 1980 my liberal friends in Manhattan were shocked and horrified by the election of Ronald Reagan. I was not surprised, as I had come to recognize that fifteen years of expansive efforts to address social problems by tax-and-spend policies had on balance been counterproductive. The misconceived welfare programs, for example, tended to shackle their supposed beneficiaries to the payments, stifling personal initiative. Finally, under Bill Clinton, this whole edifice was reformed. Even in 1980 many of these problems were evident. In short, the liberal consensus, dominant in the US since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, was crumbling.

I was aware that the shift in climate reflected by the advent of Ronald Reagan had been anticipated by a series of studies sponsored by think tanks in Washington DC. In their turn these studies rested upon currents of conservative and libertarian thought that went back for several generations.

My knowledge of these developments stemmed from a serendipitous incident. In the summer of 1973, while recovering from a bout of hepatitis, I was invited to cat-sit in San Francisco for a very intelligent Danish woman who was spending a month in Europe. Her apartment was stocked with libertarian literature. Since I had long believed that libertarianism was the work of the devil, dipping into thee tomes had the thrill of engaging in forbidden acts.  Thank goodness no one can see me, I thought.

After I returned to New York City, I acquired and read many of these books. I had always had an anarchist streak, and that side of libertarianism appealed to me. I found that modern libertarianism could be traced back to obscure nineteenth-century thinkers like Bastiat and Stirner. During the twentieth century, such economists as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman, had made formidable contributions. I had skipped economics in college, and it was a stretch for me to assimilate the more technical contributions of these writers. But the challenge was exhilarating.

Libertarianism has been burdened with two misperceptions. First, it has been pigeonholed as simply a form of conservatism. In fact libertarianism is equidistant from both conservatism and liberalism. Like conservatives, libertarians believe in limited government. Yet they share with liberals a commitment to freedom of thought and expression. Most controversially, perhaps, libertarians believe in the legalization of recreational drugs.

The other problem of perception is the caricature that all that libertarianism amounts to is the pro-capitalist advocacy of Ayn Rand. In my view, Randism is a cult, and I have never had much interest in it. Yet the “reductio ad Randam” serves many outsiders as an pretext for avoiding any serious consideration of libertarian ideas. More perceptive observers remain undeterred by this ad feminam simplification, and some libertarian ideas, such as privatization, have gained leverage throughout the world.
In the 1990s I joined a nonleft gay thinktank on the Internet.  Many of those who belonged to this group professed a belief in libertarianism.  Before long I became disillusioned with this company.  Most of these seeming fellow seekers of the truth, were, I sadly concluded, simply neocons with some surface camouflage.

If pressed for a label, I would say that I am a libertarian anarchist - but not entirely, since I cling to Karl Popper's hope for a better world, which in his view can only be realized with the aid of "partial planning."


As a graduate student I became friends with a fellow student with an impressive family background.. Her father was Hans Baron, a scholar of Renaissance political thought who had been educated in Germany, later settling in Chicago.  He is noted for introducing and defending the idea of civic humanism.

According to Baron this ideology emerged from a protracted conflict between Florence and Milan in the early modern period.  For its part, Florence was ruled by its commercial elites, while Milan was a monarchy controlled by its landed aristocracy. The Florentines held that their form of government was superior because it emulated that of the Greeks and the Roman Republic. Moreover, Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444) asserted, based on Tacitus’ pronouncements, that republican government made better men, whereas monarchy served to erode human virtue.  Baron argued that this was an epochal advance, of great significance for the future of European and American civilization. The concept came to be known more broadly as republicanism.

Since the time of Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century the concept of the social contract has been held to lie at the core of republicanism . Although modern republicanism rejected monarchy (whether hereditary or otherwise autocratic) in favor of rule by the people, classical republicanism treated monarchy as one form of government among others. Classical republicanism took aim against any form of  tyranny, whether monarchic, aristocratic, or democratic (the tyranny of the majority). The ideal favored mixed government, supported by a sense of civil responsibility.

A major advance in the understanding of this tradition was accomplished by the intellectual historian J.G.A. Pocock in his 1975 book The Machiavellian Moment.  In his view, Machiavellian thought responded to a series of crises facing early sixteenth-century Florence in which a seemingly virtuous state found itself on the edge of destruction. As a remedy, Machiavelli sought to revive classical republican ideals.

Pocock sought to show how this approach migrated to the anglophone world, first in seventeenth-century English thinkers who supported the rights of parliament over against the monarchy, and the the thinking of the Founders of the American Revolution. Pocock’s book and his subsequent work has come to represent the so-called republican synthesis, which holds that the United States was born with a fear of corruption and a desire to promote classical virtue.

Within the framework of the tradition that began with civic humanism, most would agree that citizenship entails certain basic duties, including voting and jury service.  Yet some would go farther.  One influential advocate of an enhanced set of responsibilities was the Harvard professor John Rawls, whose 1971 book A Theory of Justice has been widely influential.  Among his complex arguments I focus on one, the Difference Principle.  The Difference Principle  seeks to regulates inequalities: it only permits inequalities that work to the advantage of the worst-off. By assuring the worst-off in society a fair deal, Rawls compensates for naturally-occurring inequalities (including talents that one is born with, such as a capacity for sport).  The upshot is that those who have such benefits must sacrifice some of their advantages for the benefit of those less well off than they are.  Put baldly, this means that the more successful members of society are conscripted in a collective effort to reduce inequality. 

One can agree up to a point.  Couched as an exhortation, altruistic conduct among the privileged simply recycles the time-honored principle of noblesse oblige, defined as the obligation of the rich and powerful to serve the interests of the community.  Yet Rawls seeks to go farther and to turn a voluntary principle into a universal encumbrance. At all events, while Rawls’ thinking has found considerable favor among intellectuals, it does not seem have had much influence on actual public policy as seen in governing.  As with the proposals of many intellectuals it is too sweeping and categorical.


Another approach I sometimes incline to is a more pessimistic one than either of the two just discussed. Here are some observations regarding three now little-known thinkers in the Realist vein, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels. Reflecting on his experience in Italy, the Sicilian Mosca (as early as 1893) posited that all societies, whatever their formal constitutions and public rituals, are controlled by a political elite. This harsh dynamic acknowledges only two social categories: the rulers and the ruled. Mosca’s ideas, and those of his contemporaries Pareto and Michels, differ from those of Marx in that the ruling group is composite, rather than unitary, and therefore not a class in the strict sense. In my view, Marx’s idea of the ruling class was more traditional, in that he envisaged a kind of pseudo-kinship group modeled on, though not the same as, the traditional nobility.

Conventional wisdom assigns Mosca, Pareto, and Michels to the Right. However, a similar point was made by Sidney Webb, the Fabian who, together with his wife Beatrice Webb, ranks as one of the founders of the British Labor Party. Sidney noted, "[n]othing in England is done without the consent of a small intellectual yet practical class in London, not 2,000 in number." Edwardian England was both centralized and close-knit, and probably one has to assume a somewhat larger, more diffuse elite in other countries.

As Vilfredo Pareto emphasized, the pool of the ruling elite is being constantly refreshed, as new recruits find access. Yet the absolute number of players is small - it cannot be otherwise. This changing configuration, whose instability is only apparent, not real, refashions itself by a continuing process of minute adjustments. In this way the Participatory Illusion flourishes. "If an outsider like Henry Kissinger could make it to the pinnacle of power, then maybe I can too." In fact, this outcome is very unlikely, perhaps fortunately so for those of us who are ruled.

Robert Michels aptly summarized this situation as the Iron Law of Oligarchy. This principle applies to all kinds of societies, whether they be nominally democracies, monarchies, or authoritarian states. Moreover, size matters. The bigger the society, the more necessary - or at least convenient - it is that this ruling elite should control matters.

In the old USSR this situation came out into the open (after a fashion) in the concept of the Nomenklatura. The term derives from a confidential list (always hard to access) of privileged Party members who make all significant decisions. Oddly enough, in that respect the Soviet Union was more transparent than the US is today. As we have seen, however, the social mechanism is generally applicable - above all to societies like our own, where regrettably the mechanisms are obfuscated as much as possible.

Does this reality mean that individuals who do not belong to the ruling elites can expect to have no influence at all over policy decisions? On the whole that is just what it does mean, though there are some marginal exceptions. If they are wise, elite members in good standing will occasionally consult associates who stand outside the magic circle of power. If, however, these seemingly consultative players seek to promote a policy that goes counter to the collective wishes of their comrades, they will be instantly overruled. If it is a project that the group has already decided to undertake, the advice of the kibitzer is superfluous. At the end of the day, then, the actual influence the outsiders can bring to bear through this lateral intervention is highly circumscribed.

It is said that non-elite individuals can make a difference by joining together to form pressure groups. In union there is strength. Even here, though, the leverage accorded to non-elitists is exiguous. In many cases, the officers of pressure groups are usually themselves members of the elite, whose bidding they are more likely to do than that of their members.

For a time at least mobilization efforts such as those of the civil-rights and women’s movements can effect change. Another example, more narrowly focused, is ACT-UP, which has had a beneficial effect on medical policy. Given enough “testicular pressure,” those who manage the elites will yield, though only up to a point. Their overarching goal, which they pursue ruthlessly and with only the most minimal deviations, is to maintain power.

Occasionally there are popular upheavals, as in the massive opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet when it came to deposing president Richard Nixon, that change was deftly managed by a few key players on the inside, who had made sure that one of their more pliable colleagues, the dimwitted Gerald Ford, would take the place of his disgraced predecessor. The king is dead, long live the king!

I do in fact see hope in the rise of the blogosphere. A few of the bloggers are very widely read and quoted. Most though are not. The Iron Law of Oligarchy, it seems, extends its pall even over the blogosphere. Yet at least the blogs hasten the process of the circulation of elites. Andrew Sullivan is in; David Broder is out. Fresh faces may mean better policies. Or so we may hope.

In closing, two objections to the above sketch of the Iron Law of Oligarchy may be noted. First, the analysis seems unduly bleak and pessimistic. In fact, we may easily observe contemporary societies much worse than the managed one we live under now. Examples are the kleptocracies that dominate much of the Third World, especially in Africa. Pareto might well have agreed with Churchill that elitist democracy is the worst system in the world - except for every other. Still, it makes sense to go about the world with our eyes open.

The second objection is that my views amount to a conspiracy theory. Along these lines, there have been attempts to pinpoint the loci of the elite conspiracy: the Club of Rome, the Trilateral Commission, and the Bohemian Grove clique. Yet my theory differs from pinpointing of this type, for it posits a set of arrangements that are looser and pretty much out in the open, if one will simply look to see. There is no need to leave the living room. Watching C-Span TV on a regular basis shows the ruling-elite figures doing what they do best, talking to each other. Like some privileged prisoner, one can witness this spectacle, but is not allowed to participate.

In my short summary of the Iron Law of Oligarchy I have presented an ideal type. What would be needed to put flesh on these bones would be a series of case studies. One might begin with certain think tanks, such as the odious Council on Foreign Relations and the Rand Corporation. Doubtless such studies exist; the task would be to correlate them.


Events  have a way of intruding on political theory.  In 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached, followed shortly by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the "people's democracies," Soviet puppets in effect.  These changes meant that the United States was the sole superpower.  Yet these halcyon days ended with the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington.  The attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were an ill-advised and extremely costly attempt to deal with this problem.

The political scientist Samuel Huntington has written of a "clash of civilizations" with respect to our confrontation with militant Islam. While this position is overstated, there is no doubt that there are problems in this realm, including those arising from the large Muslim diaspora populations in Western Europe.

Despite denials, the US continued to try to serve as the world's policeman.  While I do not subscribe to the leftist view of anti-imperialists like Noam Chomsky who argue that the US is the chief source of the world's problems, there is no doubt that we need to assume a more modest posture.

Response to the new situation that developed after 2001 had led to all sorts of excesses of surveillance, as documented by Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and other whistle-blowers.  While some cosmetic changes are in store, it is clear that the rise of the national security state remains a menace, a menace that it may not be possible to contain.

Here is a personal confession.  I was briefly elated by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which started on September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Square at the lower end of my own island of Manhattan. Yet this trend, which had spread to other US cities, seems to have vanished almost as quickly as it arose.

These problems of inequality and economic constriction are common throughout the industrialized world.  Once decried for their cradle-to-grave policies, the welfare states of Western Europe and Canada have consolidated their social safety net . By any standard this is a great accomplishments. With the ACA legislation, Obama and his associates have tried to bring our own country up to this standard.

All these social programs develop constituencies and are likely to last - as long as we can afford them. By the same token, however, welfare-state liberalism has been forced into a defensive posture one directed to preventing erosion of existing programs, while at the same time abandoning hope of creating new ones. This sclerosis is not a good prescription for a vital political philosophy.

Moreover, demographic changes will make the maintenance of existing levels of social support in Western Europe more difficult.  Nor is the prognosis in the United States much better.  Even if we slash military expenses and increase taxes on the wealthy - both very desirable steps - the changes will not be enough.  There must be restraints on entitlements.  And neither of our political parties has the will do address that issue.  The future looks cloudy at best.



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